A review of Folklore, Place, and Song, a digital mapping project on corridos, created by Fiona Hartley-Kroeger, Matthew Kollmer, Loida Pan, and Isabella Viega
Folkore, Place, and Song: Mapping Corridos Across Mexico and the American Southwest
Fiona Hartley-Kroeger, Theory and Professionalization Lead, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Matthew Kollmer, Data Curation and Programming Lead, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Loida Pan, Digital Platforms and Tools Lead, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and New York University
Isabella Viega, Theory and Scholarly Applications Lead, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Ysabel Munoz Martinez, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Fiona Hartley-Kroeger, Matthew Kollmer, Loida Pan, Isabella Viega
Folklore, Place, and Song reintroduces the significance of place to the study and experience of corridos (narrative songs popular in Mexico and the American Southwest). Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa characterizes corridos as “cultural mythmakers”; artifacts and enactments of living folklore; and bearers of culture, history, and social relationships (p. 68). However, scholarly collections often flatten these rich, identity-creating affordances by abstracting corridos from their local contexts. This project reinscribes these songs within their local contexts, using digital tools to create an interactive experience of geographic specificity. It combines dataset curation and digital mapping to visualize how corridos create and affirm regional identity, and, in doing so, remediates an exciting corpus of Latinx song and folklore.
The project aggregates two kinds of place that intertwine the content and cultural life of corridos. Firstly, locations mentioned in the text become visible and navigable, thus surfacing local geographies that the songs denote as markers of identity and history. Secondly, the project describes unique points in time and space where specific songs were performed, collected, or published: channels through which oral tradition is propagated or transformed into other media. By visualizing both kinds of place simultaneously, the project allows users to explore how and where the regional cultural mythmaking of corridos traveled via performance and publication.
Our project originally focused on assembling a dataset of place names from digitized corridos and their performance and publication metadata. But, the process of locating, aggregating, and correcting optical character recognition (OCR) text of individual corridos led to questions about how place — the historical and cultural milieu of specific geographies so often central to the narratives and familiar to the corridos’ original audiences — might be revived for a modern-day global audience from beneath the layers of abstraction imposed by inscription, recording, publication, and digitization. We decided that an interactive map would be a suitable vehicle to 1) enrich appreciation of place in corridos and 2) model how our dataset could be used for cultural, literary, and musical heritage projects.
To create the map, we used the spaCy Python library and its es_core_news_md pipeline to identify named entities in the OCR texts. From the named entities output, we manually verified places mentioned in the texts, then manually relocated our data into ArcGIS mapping software, using different visual markers to help users distinguish between — and chart relationships among — textual, performance, and publication places within the same visual plane.
Audiences for this project include scholars interested in the history of corridos or Mexican folklore, music, and culture. The project both draws on and suggests avenues for further research in multiple fields, including Latinx studies, sound studies and musicology, and literary studies. By being transparent about our methods, we also engage digital humanists interested in natural language processing, named entity recognition, data curation, and cultural analytics.
The dataset, map, and Omeka site were created as a class project for a digital humanities course taught by Zoe LeBlanc in the iSchool at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. We are exploring options for archiving the site and carrying our digital scholarship on corridos forward.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 5th ed., Aunt Lute Books, 2022.
Ysabel Munoz Martinez
The digital project Folklore, Place, and Song: Digital Ethnomusicological Mapping of Corridos offers a rich archive of over a hundred corridos — a genre of “narrative song” that has become a cultural expression and historical record of long histories of migration across borders. They are displayed with careful curation that allows the audience to visualize not only the places referenced in the lyrics, but also the locations in which these songs were performed, recorded, and published. From the landing page visitors can access an informative overview of the project, its commitment to preservation of this transnational cultural heritage, and the map generated in ArcGIS and embedded in Omeka.
With a collection of songs belonging to the first quarter of the 20th century, the project addresses contemporary challenges of ethnomusicology in an age of global streaming services. In contrast, this project presents a nuanced approach, paying attention to localized knowledge and practice as better ways to interpret and experience the corridos, all while highlighting the affordances of digital humanities tools in enhancing the meanings of place. The project is also original in using special criteria for spatial landmarks, which remediates the flattening of these songs, since they have been traditionally examined in their written form. They demonstrate instead how multimedia projects can dynamically contribute to transforming the way researchers and broader audiences interact with cultural products.
Several tasks carried out to complete this work include the manual cross-referencing of the toponyms named and physical geographical places, leading the group to develop their own NER (named entity recognition) model, and the mining of several diverse sources ranging from library collections to newspapers and audio recordings. While this curatorial work succeeds in being user-friendly and intuitive, a presentation at the Global Digital Humanities Symposium discussed how the present project is one possible iteration among many, as the data can be displayed in multiple variations in the future.
The current display of data could be further improved to enhance user engagement and understanding. The information on the map appears at times fractured, and it is not clear how the user could obtain more interactive information of one particular song (i.e., the multiple places it relates to on the map, or where to find the corresponding audio file). The search box offers limited, if any, results or details. The song section would benefit from a more user-friendly organization of the songs, as well as an explanation of why these specific files were chosen from a wider collection. Some relevant metadata like performer or author could also be of interest to the user.
Although the team is currently exploring moving from Omeka to institutional sites like the Illinois Open Publishing Network (IOPN), it would be also worth considering other options like minimal computing methods and alternative platforms. While the team recognizes the challenges of furthering development, community engagement and bilingualism, any future considerations must take into account that an emphasis on the latter is essential, as this is the path that would widen the possibility of collaboration with a Spanish-speaking community. This will enrich the archive and open the visualization of these “cultural mythmakers” to a wider audience that both produces and actively listens to them.
Nonetheless, I want to reiterate that Folklore, Place, and Songstands as a powerful, interdisciplinary project combining digital tools, history, musicology, geography, and decolonial studies to better understand the cultural heritage and discursive richness of the corridos. The team’s systematic effort and care is visible in the laborious tasks carried out to create this capacious archive that users can fluently navigate.